It's a question that Lindsey Epperly gets quite often -- why would someone so young become involved in a career field presumably on a downward spiral?
It's the world of travel, of course, with those employed as agents and consultants having seen their livelihoods suffer in recent years as the Internet gave power to consumers to research and book it themselves.
That unforgiving change in business was exacerbated by the Great Recession five years ago, which prompted people to pull back on much of their leisure -- and business -- travel to save money as the downturn deepened. Fewer trips meant less commission pay for agents.
But Epperly, who was 20 years old when she became a travel consultant four years ago, said specialization and customizing in the area of "luxury" was the fortuitous route she took. And it has worked out well.
"The industry itself has changed in order to provide a service that's more valuable than what you can find online," the Brookstone School and University of Georgia graduate said. "It's more relationship-driven now. We get to know our clients. We recommend based on their personalities, their needs. We really match them to a great trip. At least that's what I do."
Epperly, who splits time between Columbus and Atlanta, serving residents in both cities, said a job that began as a bit of a lark has become her professional love.
The independent contractor travels often to far-flung destinations, a sweet benefit of the business. That includes journeys to South Africa, Australia and Tahiti, with a relatively quick jump to the Caribbean and the Bahamas just this past weekend.
Epperly, however, took time out before she left to talk about her job, challenges she faces and what it takes to make clients happy. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
How and why did you become a travel consultant instead of a teacher, nurse, doctor, lawyer or something like that?
It actually kind of fell in my lap. I always tell people that travel found me. I didn't go out looking for it. I had studied abroad at the Cannes Film Festival. I thought I wanted to do film and stuff. I did that my sophomore year of college. When I came back, my family was going on a cruise later that year, so my mom sent me down to the local travel agency, Columbus Travel, to grab a brochure. I didn't know I was talking to the owners. I didn't know anything about the travel industry. I was just telling them about my studies abroad and how much I loved traveling, but I wasn't vying for a job or anything. They offered me one on the spot. They had me start as a college student and I did it on the weekends. I would go to bridal shows and get clients for honeymoons and talk to my friends who were traveling as well. It just kind of started off that way.
Did you think at first it was simply a temporary thing and you would move on?
Oh, yeah. I was 20 years old, so I thought, "Who's going to buy a trip from me?" (laughs) It was very much: You know what, I'll try this ... and I'm so glad I did.
It's a very hard job to start out at, but I was able to build up my client base while in college. By the time I graduated, I actually had a stable enough client base to rely on.
Who's your typical client? As a luxury travel consultant, it must be those with lots of money?
(Laughs) Yes and no; luxury is in the eye of the beholder, of course. When I say luxury, I mean four- and five-star hotels, so that I know I'm sending clients to a decent place. I don't want them to come back and say they hated it because it was a bad hotel or cruise line. As for my typical clients, I deal with couples and families in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. I know that's a giant range, but it is people who tend to prefer the finer things, that want to stay in a nicer place, that want a nicer experience. But they don't have to come in here and ask for a $50,000 trip. Even if they have a smaller budget, I do want to get them that better place so they come back just blown away.
Your timing was interesting, starting in the middle of a recession.
People were like, you're crazy to specialize in luxury during this time when people are cutting back. But interestingly enough, it's really been great, and I see it growing year to year, too, with people who are interested in luxury vacations.
Are things getting better with the economic downturn behind us?
I see it improving. But the thing about it is, too, there's that old saying that travel is the one thing you can buy that makes you richer. I didn't see a giant hit just because the people that were traveling and love travel were still finding a way to do so. They didn't stop traveling completely.
What does it take to be a good travel consultant or agent?
You can definitely say you have to travel the world to learn about it, and that's a great way to justify doing so. But, to me, the No. 1 asset in working for clients is getting to know them and building a relationship with them. I think if that was not the No. 1 priority in my business, I wouldn't be successful. That is what I focus on and I think it makes a difference to people and gets clients to come back to me.
What's a typical day like for you, 8 to 5?
I'm an independent contractor. I work for Columbus Travel, but I maintain that separate brand, Vacations by Lindsey. That way I can kind of connect to clients on a more personal basis. I have my travel blog and everything on there. But, day to day, I sometimes will go into the office. I'm sometimes in Columbus, I'm sometimes in Atlanta. Each day can be totally different, just depending on where I am and what I'm doing. I'm sometimes on the road. But a lot of it is phone- and email-based, so I'm able to work remotely wherever I am with my clients.
But I can start off one morning at 6 a.m. when someone calls and says: A flight is delayed, what do we do? Or I can start off at 9 a.m. Nothing ever seems to go as planned, of course. It's one of those industries where something is going to go wrong and you're here to fix it.
Do you have to be available virtually all the time?
I do. But there are times when I try -- just to keep my sanity -- to take time off, say for a weekend. Or I have to really pull myself away (from work) at 7 o'clock because, as an independent contractor, you don't know that you're past your dinner time when you're sitting at your computer and you're not supposed to go home since you're already home. But I am readily available to clients. I'm constantly checking my emails. I've had to put out fires in the middle of the night, in the middle of the morning, at all hours pretty much just to make sure that they're taken care of.
What's the toughest situation you've ever faced as far as something going wrong?
A lot of times it's totally out of our hands. But you at least have to be there to comfort the client and take care of things. The No. 1 issue that I've had -- and I hate to use the word hurricane because people are so afraid to go to the Caribbean because of it -- but I've only had one (major storm) affect anyone in the past four years. A hurricane hit St. Lucia and I had a destination wedding down there. This was my first year in the business. Luckily, all of the guests had just left, but the honeymoon couple was still there. It hit the hotel and island hard and I got online and rerouted their flights because Delta wasn't operating out of the main airport. I had to put them on little puddle jumpers and fly them through St. Thomas and Charlotte and everything. That was a learning experience in that I got them out, and that was all that mattered.
A side benefit of your job is getting to travel on destination familiarization trips?
They're "fam" trips for short, and I do a lot of those. My family and my friends and I travel a good bit as well. I have a bunch of friends in the industry who will travel together so we can learn everything a little bit better. That's definitely a benefit.
The Internet is great, but I presume there are plenty of travel horror stories?
That's true. I travel as much as possible so I can tour the resorts and can make better recommendations. And I've gone to places that looked fabulous online, but you get there and the roof's literally falling in and the crowd is rough. The things they don't show you online -- and they never will -- that's what we're there to guard against. Going back to the Internet and people thinking that it puts you out of business ... with that example of the St. Lucia hurricane, clients that book through Expedia are going to be stuck there until they open the airport again. Expedia's not going to do anything for you to get you out of there.
Where have you gone on familiarization trips?
Of my two top favorite places that I've been, one was to Tahiti. I got to go to Bora Bora and stay in the overwater bungalows. I fell so in love with it that I actually became a Tahiti specialist. So I'm one of seven people in the state of Georgia that's officially certified to sell Tahiti. ... Then the second place I went -- and it's appropriate timing with (Nelson) Mandela -- was South Africa last year. It was just life changing. It's the kind of place I encourage everyone to go if they have the budget to do so, because it's effortless in how interesting and fascinating it is from the wildlife to the culture to the scenery. It's just breathtaking.
Is it a safe place to travel?
It is. And, of course, if they do it through me I make sure that they're taken care of from the minute they land at the airport to the minute that they leave.
You set up a detailed itinerary for folks?
Yeah, I customize itineraries for people.
Is that the norm or the exception?
It's probably the exception; it depends. Some old-school travel agents are more of a transaction machine and may just book flights and hotels. I want to make sure my clients are going to be safe through everything and taken care of through everything. So I kind of look at all of the details.
Does Europe remain a popular destination?
Oh, yeah. Italy is one of the top destinations that I send people to. The culture and everything is so phenomenal.
This being the holidays, do people actually book travel now or wait until January and February to start preparing for their trips?
That's an interesting question, and this is a tip to people. December is usually my slowest month ... but the people that book for 2014 or the new year are actually smart because sometimes rates rise at the beginning of the year. There are better rates and better availability in December because, come January, that's when most people will book for the coming year ... Our busiest time is January through March.
What percentage of U.S. travel do you do versus out of country?
For me, I don't do as much U.S.-based travel just because I'm a little bit more limited in what I offer with those four- and five-star hotels. I really specialize in international. But I think that really just depends on the agent.
Do review sites, such as TripAdvisor, have any impact on your industry?
It does, because people believe it is the end-all, be-all. I look at TripAdvisor sometimes just to get an idea of what people are saying. But you've got to take it with a grain of salt. You cannot go on there and believe everything, because then you'll be more confused than when you started off. You'll have 10 negative review and 10 positive reviews and what do you believe?
So much of travel is relative. If people have experienced the best things in the world and then they go to a four-star property, they're going to be disappointed, and they're probably going to leave a negative review. Managing their expectations is so important.
Are there places you discourage folks from going to, and I think of the Middle East, such as Egypt, which is traditionally a tourist area?
I went to the Holy Land, to Egypt and Israel, on a cruise last year, and it was one of the most life-changing places I've ever seen ... But we happened to get in and get out at the perfect time. It was right before they canceled a whole slew of cruises that were going to Egypt because of the violence. It's one of the places that's on a lot of people's bucket lists, so I don't discourage it. But they just have to understand the risk that something can change the day before their trip.
What's the most challenging aspect of your job?
I think beating that idea people have that agents are more expensive or that agents don't bring anything to the table or that there's no value in using a travel agent. I am constantly having to explain my value to people. But once they use me, they understand. I always tell people to give me one chance, and it will change your life for traveling to the better. And we don't cost any more than the prices they see online, and I don't charge fees. So to get someone else to do this for you and to make sure that you're taken care of for absolutely no extra price is kind of a no-brainer.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
I love happy travelers. When they come back and send me an email and it has pictures of their trip and they're talking about who made it special, which staff members made it special, and why it was incredible, that is the best part of it to me. It makes me feel like I did it right for them. I got to know them, I got to know their personalities and I recommended the right place. So they came back happy because they wouldn't have known about it had they not used me.
What's your five-year plan? Does it include remaining a travel consultant?
I don't plan on leaving this industry. I'm so happy with it. It's such a perfect fit for my personality and I can see myself continuing to help people and make their travel dreams come true.
Finally, is there any place you haven't yet visited, but would like to in the next year or so?
I haven't made it South America, so that's definitely on the top of my list. And I did Australia this year, but didn't make it over to New Zealand. That's up there as well.
Name: Lindsey Epperly
Current residence: Atlanta and Columbus
Education: 2007 graduate of Brookstone School; earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Georgia in 2011, with certificates in new media, music business and entrepreneurship
Previous jobs: While a student at UGA, she interned at a music venue (the Melting Point in Athens) under their booking agent
Family: Parents, Cathy and David Epperly
Leisure time: Traveling, of course, whenever she has the chance
Of note: Made Travel Agent magazine’s “30 Under 30” list her first year as a travel consultant; loves writing and keeping a travel blog on her website, Vacations by Lindsey; writes the travel section for Southern Views; also does some marketing work for her father’s tire and auto business, including an occasional TV commercial